Ahead of the 50th anniversary of what was the biggest British military operation since the 1956 Suez Crisis, we take a look back at how the Evening News, the Guardian and the Times reported on Operation Motorman. These articles offer a rare insight into what it was like to have been in Belfast and Londonderry that day, watching the events unfold in real time.
To revisit the other events that dominated news coverage 50 years ago, check out our wonderful collection of authentic 1972 newspapers.
Turn the page to:
- What was Operation Motorman, 1972?
- “Troops meet little Belfast opposition“
- Daniel Hegarty
- “Relief – but what next?”
- “Village bombs kill six“
In the early years of the Troubles, which stemmed from the riots of 1969, Northern Ireland’s two main cities, Belfast and Derry, were segregated, with some areas wholly Catholic and others Protestant. Residents and paramilitaries from both sides had taken to building barricades to seal off their neighbourhoods, which by that point were effectively autonomous and existing outside of government law.
On 21 July 1972, 22 bombs were detonated in Belfast, killing nine and injuring over a hundred. In response, the British Government implemented Operation Motorman, an invasion of the barricaded “no-go” areas, ten days later. 21,000 troops, accompanied by heavily-armoured artillery vehicles, entered Londonderry, Belfast and several other nearby towns at 4:00am, destroying the blockades and taking back control from the paramilitaries, most of which had already fled the area.
The Operation Motorman newspaper article we’ll start with is from the Evening News, which went to print the same day of the incident, July 31, 1972. It’s opening summary read:
“TANKS moved in today to smash down the IRA ‘no-go’ barricades in Londonderry and Belfast… More than 13,000 troops took part in the take-over of the “no-go” areas. They met little resistance.”
The Guardian’s article, published the following day (August 1), offers a glimpse into the preparations that took place immediately prior to Operation Motorman:
“The first indication of Motorman came late on Sunday night when [Northern Ireland Secretary] Mr. Whitelaw’s office issued a statement warning people to stay off the streets. Policemen were told to report for duty at 3:30am and troops were sent to bed to prepare for a four o’clock operation.”
As the Guardian continues, the Operation did start at “exactly that time”, but as the Times’ August 1 article describes, preparations were ongoing way before that:
“[At 1:30am] convoys up to half a mile long had rumbled across the bridge from Ebrington Barracks, Ballykelly and Limavady.”
“At 2am troops completely sealed the Craigavon Bridge to civilian traffic and closed the city centre.”
The Guardian adds:
“They were marshalled on the quayside at the back of the bombshattered Guildhall. More armoured cars, Saladin tanks, lorries and Land-Rovers moved up, and were joined in the early hours by a 60-ton Centurion tank fitted with a massive bulldozer blade.”
Still, before 4am, an hour-long gun battle broke out in the city centre, as the Guardian describes:
“Several reporters were pinned down for about an hour in a recess of the post office wall, crouching helplessly in the drizzle while soldiers, their faces blackened, took up firing positions around them. Much of the army’s fire was directed at the few street lamps still lit.”
At “dead on” 4:00, the operation officially began. The Times wrote:
“They began moving from Guildhall Street, the Strand and other points in single file. Four 60-ton converted Centurion tanks moved off first towards the barricades.”
At this point, the first barricades were removed. As reported by all three papers, the troops were met with little resistance. Indeed, according to the Guardian, members of the Ulster Defence Association worked together with the troops to pull down the barricades, made up chiefly of “hijacked buses and concrete barriers”. One member of the UDA said:
“The colonel of the regiment told us that the soldiers had gone into Bogside. We said we would take our barricades down at once.”
According to numerous members of the public living in Roman Catholic areas, the IRA had left “several days” earlier.
Operation Motorman didn’t go off without any hitches, however. The Times noted that, once foot patrols were deployed, shots were fired, followed by “sporadic shooting for two hours”. Then, at 6:30, explosions:
“In the Creggan Heights troops discovered wires leading to four claymore mines set in a grass patch beside the road. They were later detonated by the Army. Shortly before six a rocket was fired by soldiers at a suspect car in Stanley’s walk, breaking windows in 10 houses.”
The Guardian also notes that a bomb “went off in a Protestant pub on the waterside”. After 7am, troops were reportedly met with no resistance, and began securing schools and public halls, setting up prefabricated observation posts and searching the area. This search, though, proved fruitless for the most part in Belfast, as the Guardian relays:
“Troops began to search specific houses to arrest known men, but found almost every cupboard entirely bare… The total arms haul has been correspondingly slight: two rifles, a Thompson gun, and 300lbs of explosive only were found.”
The Evening News did, though, mention some successful arrests:
“Twenty people had been arrested in today’s swoop – 13 in the Castlewellan area, four in Belfast and three in Armagh.”
Overall, the public perception was, at this stage at least, considered to be positive, particularly from the Protestant community, who were said to have been “almost unanimously enthusiastic about the moves”. The Guardian discussed the civilian response to the operation, particularly from the Belfast youth:
“By mid-afternoon, the only opposition the troops had met came from a few small boys who began throwing stones. There was no sign of co-ordinated rioting, and many other boys were chatting to soldiers.”
Onlookers did antagonise troops verbally in Derry:
“Soldiers were cat-called and jeered by a huge crowd as they tried ineffectually to push aside the barricade with one of the bulldozers until the bulldozer blade broke.”
Said barricade, a truck chassis set in eight tons of concrete, would be the last of the fifteen barriers still standing at the end of the day.
In the crossfire on the Creggan estate, two members of the public lost their lives to army weaponry. The details around one of these deaths would be disputed for the next 49 years. As the Guardian reported, the army initially claimed of the victims that:
“One… was a gunman and the other was a petrol bomber.”
“This version is totally rejected by local people.”
One of the casualties was James Bradley, 19, allegedly a Provisional IRA member:
“The Army said he had been seen with a gun, and that it had also hit snipers in the Rossville Flats.”
The other was Daniel Hegarty, 15, in a garden 400 yards away from the main action. His father said that:
“His son was unarmed and had merely been watching the troops.”
Daniel’s cousin Christopher, 17, was also shot in the head, but survived:
“Mr. Hegarty said that the second youth was going to Daniel’s aid and was shot by the same soldier.”
Hegarty’s death is something of a footnote in both the Guardian and the Times, and he is not mentioned at all by name in the Evening News (although it is possible his identity may not have been known at the time it went to print).
But in 2011, following the Good Friday Agreement, the case was reopened. It was determined that Hegarty posed no threat at the time of his shooting by the soldier, who had been hiding behind the garden’s fence. In 2019, 47 years after the incident, the soldier was charged with murder. However, in July 2021 the case was dropped due to an unreasonable prospect of key evidence.
Despite the perceived success of the Motorman, described by the Guardian as “immaculately planned” and by Mr. Whitelaw as “highly successful”, all three papers make it clear that it had not been intended to be a quick-fix, but a long term measure to remove, as Whitelaw put it, “the capacity of the Provisional I.R.A. to wreck this community”. The Guardian highlighted the prolonged nature of the operation with its front page headline:
“Army prepares for long stay in no-go areas”
Its front page articles stated:
“The 9,000-strong UDR has been fully mobilised. Motorman is plainly intended to last several months, and new billets are being provided for troops in the heart of the no-go areas”.
The Guardian also looked forward to the possible implications of the operation, beginning:
“The political success of Motorman depends on how effectively it stops the IRA. Mr Whitelaw is well aware that they will undoubtedly try to demonstrate that their ability to continue the guerrilla campaign has been unimpaired.”
The Guardian’s Political Correspondent Norman Shrapnel asked:
“For once we had an undeniable breakthrough in Ulster – but to what?”
Shrapnel goes on to explain how the operation was a “calculated risk”, but a risk nevertheless:
“The dangers remained – the chief being that the Catholics might be driven back into the arms of the IRA who, after all, had wanted a military response.”
The main Guardian article speculates on the worst case scenario – a potential IRA backlash:
“It is still thought most of the leading Provisionals escaped the invading troops and are now hiding over or near the border. But it is equally certain that they will try to return, most probably when the main part of the army task force retires. Last year, when the army was entering Free Derry almost daily to clear barricades, the IRA nearly always hit back as the troops were leaving, not as they arrived.”
Miss Bernadette Devlin echoed these sentiments at a Republican movement street meeting:
“They imagine that because they went in and were not met with gunfire, that they have driven the IRA out of Derry. Wait until they are going out of this area, and they will see if it is so easy [sic].”
Another man in Andersonstown was quoted as saying:
“There’ll be trouble when the [IRA] boys get back. Naturally they left when they heard the troops were coming in. There’s no use in firing at these armoured cars.”
Mr Barney McFadden, a leader of the Provisional IRA, is quoted by the Times as saying:
“Our men are still in town. I ask you to have faith in the republican movement. They will stay here and take a greater toll when the time and opportunity come. Everything is going to plan.”
And, hours after the operation began, Mr. Whitelaw said:
“It would only be prudent to assume some sort of reaction. Car bombing, for instance, is one of the things they could do – it requires very few people and creates much damage.”
A chilling assessment indeed, given that just an hour before, six people had been killed by a series of car bombs in a village ten miles from Derry. It is unclear from any of the newspaper coverage whether or not Whitelaw was aware of this fact when he made his statement.
Seven hours after Operation Motorman began, three car bombs exploded in the village of Claudy, as the Times reports:
“In the first act of violence since the dawn invasion of the Bogside and Creggan, six people were killed and 32 injured today when three car-bombs destroyed most of the village of Claudy, 10 miles from Londonderry.”
The Guardian’s article opened with:
“Free Derry is free no longer, but the spirit of violence which created it still festers on.”
Though all three papers report six deaths, the Evening News quotes Labour MP for the area, Mr. Ivan Cooper, as saying:
“It is possible eight people have died.”
In the end, the official death toll stood at nine.
The Evening News’s coverage continued with the following:
“Eye witnesses said the first blast threw men, women and children all over the street. They had no time to recover before the other two bombs went off. No warnings were given and people had no chance to explain the blasts”.
By contrast, the Guardian and the Times both report that there was a warning for the two subsequent bombs, albeit in vain:
“A telephone call was made to the local police after the first bomb had gone off shortly before 11am. The caller said there were two other car-bombs in the village. As the policeman replaced the receiver both bombs exploded.”
Both papers also tell of how police sergeant Desmond Jones “prevented an even greater tragedy” by hurrying people away from the second bomb after discovering it in a yellow Mini without number plates. The third bomb, “which was not spotted”, exploded “a few seconds later”, killing three.
Cooper, who was born less than two miles from the scene, was quoted by the Guardian:
“I knew all these people. I was brought up with them. This was just a lazy, happy-go-lucky little place and there has been no trouble here whatsoever.”
While the Guardian states that the Claudy bombing was “taken by many as a grotesque act of defiance by the Provisional IRA”, both they and the Times relay the response of the accused:
“The Provisional IRA denied in Dublin last night that it was responsible for the Claudy bombs.”